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Friends celebrate life and work of Edgerton

By Katherine Shim

On Wednesday, the Institute came to terms with the death of Harold E. Edgerton SM '27, Institute professor emeritus of electrical engineering, with a day-long celebration of his life and accomplishments. The events of the day were marked not with solemn mourning, but with happy reminiscences, a chuckle and a joke. It was a tribute to the vibrant personalty of "Doc" Edgerton.

Edgerton, born in Fremont, NE, on April 6, 1903, first came to MIT as a graduate student. He remained at the Institute for 60 years, most of them spent as professor of electrical engineering. He was known worldwide for his invention of the stroboscopic light, his stop-action photographs, and his work in ocean research. Edgerton died of a heart attack on Jan. 4 at the age of 86.

The events of the day officially began with a gathering of Edgerton's friends, colleagues, students and admirers at 2 pm in Kresge Auditorium. The event was run entirely by members of the MIT community. Colleagues of Edgerton in the Department of Electrical Engineering served as ushers, while the lilting folk music that Edgerton himself had loved was played by Professor of Electrical Engineering Alan J. Grodzinsky '69, Senior Library Assistant Forrest W. Larson, and Scott L. Garland `90.

"A perpetual dreamer"

The program consisted of eulogies given by five friends of Edgerton -- President Paul E. Gray '54, Herbert E. Grier '33 of Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Grier (EG&G); Truman S. Gray SM '29, professor emeritus of electrical engineering; Wilbur E. Garrett, editor of National Geographic Magazine; and oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

"It's been an honor to be associated with Doc," Grier said, "to just have his guidance, his friendship. It, well, made the whole thing worthwhile."

In all of the eulogies, not only were Edgerton's scientific accomplishments stressed, but also his warmth and tremendous impact as the teacher of thousands.

"In all great teachers there is that impulse to share, to share the wonder and excitement.... Doc Edgerton reached out [to his students] across the skepticism and doubt, drawing them in," said Gray.

"Doc was a teacher from the beginning -- not a scientist but a teacher and a humanist. All the honors he got were as much for his ability to motivate people to do things than anything else. That was perhaps greater than any of his scientific accomplishments.... Remember the influence of Doc and keep trying to do better all the time," stated Grier.

The filled auditorium was an intimate gathering where members of the audience remembered together, chuckled at the pranks and warmth of Edgerton together, laughing with tears in their eyes.

Garrett said, "He never lost the fun of the Nebraska boy. He never lost the childlike wonder. At the same time that he was a scientific and intellectual giant, he was a living elf."

Cousteau, the last to speak about Edgerton said, "I first met Harold at the time he was making drops of milk into royal crowns. He was the only human being I ever met that met life with as much enthusiasm.... He was a perpetual dreamer. He was at the same time solidly anchored in the real world. He was a hard-working gentle wiz, and he is cherished [by my family]."

Cousteau, speaking of the premature deaths of both Edgerton's son and his own, described how he and Edgerton found empathy and understanding in each other. He closed by stating, "Born in tragedy, our friendship will survive both of us."

The program ended with a video tribute.

Following the Kresge program, there was a jubilee in the Sala de Puerto Rico of the Stratton Student Center featuring exhibits of the Double Hydraulic Happening Machine, or "Piddler"; a collection of internationally acclaimed photographs by Edgerton; music lead by Associate Provost Samuel J. Keyser; and a photo opportunity entitled, "You + Balloon + Pin = POP!" run by Charles E. Miller SM '66, technical instructor and lecturer in the Department of Electrical Engineering.

At 5 pm the Lecture Series Committee presented its Edgerton Memorial Lecture in which Kjell Sandved, a research photographer at the Smithsonian Institution gave a slide presentation entitled "Beyond the Oceans," followed by the film Curious Creatures.

Other events of the day included the continuous showing of a video on Edgerton's life and work in Lobby 7. Sign-up sheets were also circulated for the Friends of Doc Edgerton Club. The purpose of the club has not yet been defined, but organizers hope to distribute a newsletter with news of Edgerton's former students and organize an annual meeting on his birthday.